Thoughts from the Frontlines

When I heard of Occupy Wall Street, my first thought was, “Finally!” I agreed with the central message: that corporate influence in the United States government is compromising individual rights in favor of profit. Though I was skeptical of the movement’s capacity to enact real change, I was tired of hearing about the apathy and complacency of my generation. When I found out that some of my Pitzer friends were setting up camp at Occupy Los Angeles during fall break, I decided to join them for a night and see what all the fuss was about.

Though I’d never been to an organized movement in the U.S., I had some experience with large-scale protests after spending a summer in Athens. From May to August, the city’s main square was filled with citizens enraged by the government’s response to their public debt crisis. The scene was exciting and lively as protesters set up permanent camps, chanted, and held up signs and banners.

When I arrived in downtown Los Angeles, the scene was similarly lively. Stretching before City Hall was a block full of tents. Another closed-off street housed a stage for bands. Across the way was an open microphone. Protesters lined up on the corner waving their signs. Everywhere, I saw the main slogan “We are the 99 percent!” referencing how the richest one percent have a disproportionate amount of control over the government.

Occupy Wall Street strives to be a leaderless movement, but Occupy LA is remarkably organized. There is a first-aid area, a kids’ village, a food tent, a library tent overflowing with donated books, and even a meditation tent. At the welcome tent was a schedule of classes that included A History of Health Care, Basic Economics, and Stripping Corporate Personhood. Every day at 7:30 p.m. there was a general assembly that met to discuss both day-to-day operations and demands of the movement. That first night, I did nothing but meet new people and party, hanging out with self-professed communists and singing joyfully to contribute to the never-ending drum circle.

Maybe because I’d done nothing to dispel the stereotype that the protesters were a bunch of lazy party hippies, I opted to stay a couple more nights. I took advantage of the resources, attending a class on the history of nonviolent movements. I saw a play and watched documentaries on animal cruelty and corporate greed.

My most informative experience was listening to a man holding an “Ask the Capitalist” sign as he clearly delineated how the government has permitted the Federal Reserve to serve corporate interests by continuing to print more money without any clear plan for how we will eventually pay it back. Finally, I was starting to get a clearer idea of the goals of the movement: to address the growing disparity in wealth, the absence of legal repercussions for those responsible for the global financial crisis, and corporate influence on the federal government.

Though we all agreed generally about the central problem––that corporate interests have hijacked this nation––people approach this issue with different points of view, and thus the media can portray our message as muddled. There is the fear of extremists negating the legitimacy of this movement, as I’ve read a lot of articles which exclusively point out the freaks. Yet in reality, there are all types of people attending these protests: anarchists who want to declare their own sovereignty from the government, homeless people with nowhere else to go, dreadlocked hippies calling for veganism, and unapologetic fur-wearers. On Sunday, I somehow ended up spending the night drinking beers with three self-identified Republicans, arguing about Reagan’s legacy and the necessity of welfare. Even though I was being challenged, it was refreshing to be in a place where not everyone agrees with each other, so I don’t take my own views for granted!

But with the multiplicity of perspectives comes the challenge of building consensus. The big issue debated in this weekend’s general assembly was whether or not this movement should register as a non-profit organization in order to receive large donations, an issue which became a microcosm of the debate over whether the system should be abolished or restored to its original, uncorrupted state.

In my most cynical moment, I thought about how ‘occupying’ is essentially doing nothing in a public space. As people argued over demands and solutions (presidential commission to investigate! six month moratorium on foreclosures! end corporate personhood!) I couldn’t help but get flustered at the enormity of everything we are fighting. If my only contribution is my body in a space of transgression, how does that equate to systematic change? This type of protest is only powerful when everybody who agrees makes the same sacrifices and joins in solidarity. But I realized that people will not commit until their personal security and welfare is threatened.

Considering the longevity of this movement, I couldn’t help but think back to the protests in Athens. I left Greece and returned in July to a movement in shambles. Everything was different, exhausted; the energy had waned. They no longer shut down the streets around the protest. Violence between cops and the protesters kept breaking out, and people had started chipping marble off the square to throw at Parliament. Then one day I returned, and everyone was gone. The police had finally succeeded in driving them out, and suddenly the square was depleted. The grass had turned to dirt. What is going to happen to Occupy Wall Street in winter? Will people really be so dedicated?

Possibly, but I think it’s a mistake to evaluate the Occupy movement only in terms of longevity. Its primary goal is to educate. From that standpoint, the movement is already succeeding. Over the course of the weekend, I was surprised how many times I heard protesters refer to a personal “awakening.” People are angry, and Occupy LA certainly allows for the expression of that anger. Perhaps more importantly, though, it allows people to refine their anger and to channel it into specific issues. Increased regulation, the reinstitution of the Glass-Steagall Act, more progressive redistribution of wealth, limitations on corporate campaign contributions––these were only some of the issues discussed over the weekend. One imagines (hopes?) that these issues constitute a new standard of political judgment among many of those who came to City Hall. Future candidates, beware.

In the United States, 12 million homes will likely be foreclosed upon within the coming decade. Greece is at risk of capitulating profits for the European Union. The world is on the brink of a second recession. The Occupy movements have gained international relevance. Americans, at least, are paying attention. Time magazine found that the vast majority of Americans had heard of the Occupy movements, and that 54 percent of those Americans possessed a positive impression of them (only 23 percent viewed them negatively). This awareness is a start. As the original T. Paine wrote, “Those who want to reap the blessing of freedom must like men undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”

If you’re interested or skeptical, go and see for yourself! City Hall is a couple blocks away from Union Station, which is easily accessible by Metrolink.

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